JACKSONVILLE (Ala.) -- A year ago, Marshall Clark, Jacksonville State's linebacker, smiles from a suite that overlooks Burgess-Snow Field. He shakes his head as he ponders how they managed to pull it off. They had to navigate all the uncertainties of the summer, play seasons in the fall and spring, and then eventually make it to the playoffs.
Clark, just like everyone else, has managed to find the energy and enthusiasm to look forward to what lies ahead. He says they are ready mentally.
The Gamecocks, who compete within the FCS, begin their third season on Wednesday when they travel to Montgomery to play UAB (7:30 pm). ET, ESPN and ESPN App compete in the FBS. This team is coming off its second Conference USA title.
Talking about the next season is difficult without looking back at the past. Clark reflects on a time last August, when Clark thought they wouldn't make it to kickoff.
He recalls that the team was practicing the morning before and that the energy was high. The guys were excited to begin the season against Florida International. The coach John Grass blew a whistle, and all of a sudden, everyone stopped. Grass gathered his team and explained that FIU had postponed their game. The practice was cancelled. They could all go home.
Clark recalled how deflated the players looked as they went to the locker room.
He said, "Our faces were miles long." It was almost like "Man, we might never play at all."
FIU's announcement was followed by more bad news. Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, announced that all fall championships had been canceled. This meant there would not be any FCS playoffs. The Ohio Valley Conference cancelled its fall season the next day.
The players agreed to the experiment of trying to survive a pandemic for better or worse.
Two months prior, the veterans of the team called a players'-only meeting to help them get ahead of the chaos they saw coming. As they talked to each other, they were open and honest: The virus is real. It will spread. We need to be one.
Clark stated that they all agreed at one point that "If we're going to play, we're all going to play." We're not going to play if we aren't."
One player chose to leave, but it wasn't because they didn't want him to. His mother had recently undergone breast cancer surgery and he needed him to be there to take care of her.
All were in agreement.
Clark stated, "Once we decided that to play ball," "it was game on."
They came to Jacksonville to compete in conference championships and not for a few non-conference games that didn't really matter. They weren't going wait for spring to see if the OVC would reopen. Clark stated that it felt like a 50-50 proposition.
They boarded buses one week later than planned and set off on the road for Florida State to start their fall season. Florida State was a Power 5 program, paying $400,000 for the privilege of beating JSU. However, the Gamecocks were on fire and put a fright into Seminoles' heavily favored Seminoles. They led at halftime, but then lost steam in the second. The Gamecocks lost, but bounced back to beat Mercer in North Alabama and then cap off their fall schedule with a win against FIU.
They only took a few weeks off before returning to work in preparation for the spring season which was just three months away.
JSU finished 6-1 in conference-only play and reached the FCS playoffs. Round 1 saw the Gamecocks defeat Davidson 49-14.
They lost 20-14 to Delaware in the quarterfinals.
After the loss, the locker room was filled with a strange and eerie atmosphere. Clark said that the locker room was quiet after the loss, as though it was sinking in to the fact that, unlike the fall season there would be no more extension to the never-ending seasons.
They would have to start over from scratch, and without any normal offseason to recover.
They have 122 days before kickoff against UAB and they won't forget feeling the disappointment.
Clark stated, "I believe that's why it's OK right now," "because we need to chase what we want."
Gavin Hallford, Jacksonville State strength coach was serious.
After the Delaware loss, he advised players to go home. Get up. Recover. Rest.
He knew that there would be people who wouldn't hear him or their bodies. They were young and foolish, so they headed back to the weight room.
He said, "We ended playing on May 2, and they wanted us to be here on the May 3rd."
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Their drive was admirable but ultimately it proved counterproductive.
Some players were placed on restrictions.
Hallford stated that he had told some men they wouldn't be allowed to return until June.
Tylan Grable was an All-American offensive tackle lineman who almost lived a month without thinking about football. He needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of the trenches, taking many hits and playing in the field. He went on vacation, his first since high school. He spent two weeks in Panama City and Cocoa Beach with his family. He said that he was able recharge.
Clark, who was named to the All-Conference Team, wasn't as patient. He drove on back roads around the town. He tried fishing. He was mostly just antsy. He went to the gym two weeks after he returned from vacation. He was back on campus on June 1.
Clark stated that around 25 players were there lifting with him at the moment. After two weeks, there were now 50. It was the whole team for two more weeks.
Hallford was amazed at how quickly everyone bounced back. He joked that if it were him, he would still be home in bed.
However, he was cautious. To reduce wear and tear, the normal off-season program that focuses on building strength was reduced. They would do some conditioning but nothing like they would experience in a summer.
Marshall Clark, Jacksonville State's linebacker, said that after losing to Delaware in spring's playoffs, it was time to chase the things we love. JSU Athletics
Clark and Grable both said that fall camp felt exactly the same as before.
Grable stated, "We're flying all over," "The competition's good."
JSU is ranked among the top 10 FCS schools. The entire team is back as last year's players took advantage of the additional year of eligibility that the NCAA granted everyone due to COVID.
Grass is optimistic as he enters his eighth season as head coach. He has been amazed at how quickly players recover, just like Hallford.
He said, "Kids can be resilient."
He can't help but feel that the same kids have gone two years with no offseason program. Some freshmen and sophomores haven't gained the weight necessary to compete at this level.
"It has really held our back as far as developing player," Grass stated. "And we place a high priority on that." It's something that people take for granted.
He said, "I worry about this more than anything else."
He wonders about the long-term effects of playing three seasons in such a close succession. Although players haven't suffered the rash injuries that you might expect, Grass stated, "Ask me again within three to four months."
He has been very happy with his team overall. Although some might argue that the team's short offseason is disadvantageous compared to those who only played in the fall, there is another argument.
One, the players found it more fun to play against real opponents during spring games than practicing against each other endlessly.
Another reason was that there wasn't enough time to lose your competitive edge or forget the lessons learned in the past 12 months.
Clark stated that they are grateful to be entering the season without worrying about whether or not they will play. They are enjoying something closer to normalcy, even though the pandemic isn't over.
Clark stated that it was fun.
They are eager to finish what they started after coming up short in the playoffs.